IN the early evenings, the anthem that rang out hailed from half a century ago.

The scenes later, in contrast, would be utterly of this age. We Shall Overcome sang the mothers and fathers, some of them with children perched on their shoulders, as they marched through the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in protest at the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.

Within hours, children now safe home, a different scene took hold. Police dressed like combat soldiers stood feet from the "enemy", while protesters peered through the eye holes in their state of the art gas masks, the better to send messages worldwide on Twitter about what was going on as they saw it. And in the White House, back from his holiday and taking note of it all, sat America's first black president.

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There is no place quite like the United States for harking back and looking forward at the same time, for displaying its best and worst faces to the world. Here was a country, stained by slavery, now led by an African-American Commander In Chief. The dream of Dr Martin Luther King realised, for one man at least. But on the streets the sense of racial injustice was still burning as fiercely. America had powered into the 21st century all right, but some folk still felt they were stuck at the back of the bus and going nowhere.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown was how familiar the event seemed. Mr Brown is far from the first African-American to be the victim of a police shooting. As USA Today, The Herald's sister paper, reported recently, fatal shootings of black Americans by white police officers amounted to two a week from 2005 to 2012. Two a week. With those sort of statistics the protesters in Ferguson, those parents especially, are right to fear Mr Brown's name will not be the last on the list, not until the gulfs between black and white, between the haves and the have-nots, begin to be bridged in significant and lasting ways.

As so often when faced with fast-moving events, the Obama administration has seemed to be on the back foot over Ferguson. It was only after 10 nights of violence that the president dispatched his Attorney General, Eric Holder, to the scene, though Mr Holder had days before set a federal civil rights investigation in motion. Mr Holder has promised to get to the bottom of what happened when police confronted Mr Brown, and their actions after his death. One of the AG's first acts has been to meet the teenager's family.

While condemning the lawlessness, Mr Holder was careful also to say the right to protest would be upheld. "The Justice Department," he wrote in a letter published in the St Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, "will defend the right of protesters to peacefully demonstrate and for the media to cover a story that must be told."

Watching the chaos on the street, with the National Guard called in and police dressed as if taking on insurgents abroad rather than protesters at home, one had started to wonder whether the home of the First Amendment had lost the paperwork and the plot. Doubtless it was diplomatic mischief making, but when the likes of China and Iran begin to express concern about what is happening on the streets of Missouri, the world has indeed become a topsy turvy place.

More than 50 years on from the March On Washington, America's racial politics have the capacity to turn highly toxic, very quickly. Education and attainment have given rise to a black middle class, growing in power, wealth and influence, but as the events in Ferguson show, too many are still being left behind, leading to the most gross imbalances in society. The population of Ferguson is 65 per cent African-American, yet only 6 per cent of police officers are black. One fifth of families are living below the poverty line. Inequality is being passed down the generations, together with a sense that the richest country on the planet is not prepared to make the vast investment necessary to tackle the problems. So the gulf between black and white, rich and poor, persists and deepens.

The troubles in Ferguson are inextricably linked to race, but it is not only race that splits societies into haves and have-nots. Here in Scotland, as both sides in the referendum debate rushed to talk up the country as a prosperous nation that can look forward to an even better future if only it votes Yes/No (delete accordingly), a new report did not so much rain on the optimists' parade as send forth a tsunami.

The Poverty And Exclusion In The UK study, as reported in The Herald this week, reckoned one-fifth of Scottish children and adults can now be classed as poor. Within that number, some 200,000 children are living in damp homes, and 30,000 youngsters are not being fed properly. Ladies and gentleman, in the competition for the title of "Scotland's shame", I think we have a winner.

Scotland's poor and huddled-round-the-fan-heater masses live lives of quiet desperation in every sense. Not for them noisy protest marches or riots. One can speculate on the reasons why, and many did during the summer of 2011 when disturbances rocked English cities after the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan in London. The smug argued Scotland was different, it had too much sense of community, of us all being in this together, and that was why disadvantaged Scots did not trash their own neighbourhoods. The mischievous wondered if Scotland kept quiet as a show of passive-aggressive one-upmanship, to show we were better than the English. The cynical, meanwhile, reckoned the reason why Scotland's poorest communities did not riot was not down to solidarity or stoicism but the liberal application of booze and drugs, those traditional Scottish painkillers for poverty and unhappiness.

But the presence of the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the disadvantaged, call them what you will, is as certain as death, taxes and LibDem U-turns, is it not? Yet, as has been seen in Ferguson this past fortnight, the way the have-nots are having their say is changing. Courtesy of the internet, the balance of power has shifted when it comes to the information war. Social media allows the voice of protest to shout as loud as official sources. Anyone with a smartphone can be a broadcast journalist now. The aims are the same as they always were: inform, organise, agitate, but everything is done at lightning pace, with the kind of dramatic, world attention grabbing results as seen in Ferguson.

Despite the speed with which the trouble in Ferguson took hold, what happens next is likely to be a long, drawn out affair as the judicial process grinds into action.

It is noteworthy that as quickly as attention fell on Ferguson, so the story plunged down the running order as news of the horrific murder of the American reporter James Foley broke. Western governments now have new nightmares to battle, ones that for now seem more pressing. The poor, being always with us, can wait. Until the next time.